The Classic Typewriter Page

Underwood No. 5

When most people think "old typewriter," they picture something much like the Underwood No. 5. Why? Because this is the most successful typewriter design in history. Appearing shortly before 1900, the Underwood established the stereotype of a typewriter until the introduction of the IBM Selectric in 1961. When the Underwood was first introduced, it was only one of hundreds of competing and extremely varied typewriter designs. But by 1920, almost every typewriter imitated the Underwood.

The Underwood typewriter is the creation of German-American inventor Franz X. Wagner. The name "Underwood" comes from John T. Underwood, an entrepreneur who bought the company early in its history. (The Underwood family was already a successful manufacturer of ribbons and carbon paper. It's said that when Remington decided to produce its own line of ribbons and carbon paper, Underwood responded, "All right, then, we'll just build our own typewriter!")

The scarcest and most valuable Underwoods are the No. 1 and No. 2. About 12,000 of these were made between 1896 and 1900. They are labeled "Wagner Typewriter Co." on the back, and differ in subtle ways from later Underwoods. One difference is the absence of the see-saw ribbon color selector that you can see on the right side of the machine pictured at the top of this page.

Underwood Models 3, 4, and 5 were made from late 1900 until late 1931 or early 1932. The No. 3 is a wide-carriage machine, the No. 4 types 76 characters, and the No. 5 types 84 characters. The No. 5 was the quintessential Underwood. Millions of these machines were used by secretaries, journalists, government officials, and writers throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Later Underwoods were superficially modernized, but retained the same basic mechanism. The name "No. 5" was even given to some of these later typewriters, in honor of the model that made the company's fortune. The company was eventually bought by Olivetti, and in the early 1960s, the name "Underwood" finally disappeared from the typewriter world.

Now, why was the Underwood so successful in its day? Let's review the advantages and disadvantages of the Underwood as compared to other designs:

Typebars. Typebar typewriters were always popular, but many early typewriters printed from single type elements (typewheels, type cylinders, or type shuttles). Single-element typewriters have excellent alignment, and offer the convenience of interchangeable type styles. But typebar typewriters won out--temporarily--because they were faster. This difference in speed was remedied only by the electrified IBM Selectric, with its "golf ball" type element. In order to maintain relatively good alignment, the Underwood's typebars pass through a U-shaped slotted segment.

Frontstroke mechanism. As this ad from 1906 points out, writing on the Underwood is in sight, because the typebars hit the front of the platen. That may sound obvious, but most typebar machines of the 1870s-1890s were understrokes: these "blind writers" typed on the bottom of the platen, and the typist had to raise the carriage in order to see what she had just typed. There were many attempts to solve this problem, but the frontstroke approach was probably the best. (The Underwood was not the first frontstroke machine; it was preceded by the Daugherty, among others.)

QWERTY keyboard. This awkward arrangement of letters was introduced on the Sholes and Glidden of 1874. Many manufacturers introduced competing arrangements, but QWERTY won out, by force of habit. Underwood was wise not to introduce a different arrangement.

Four-bank keyboard with single shift. Some other typewriters used "full keyboards," with a separate key for each character. Others had only three banks of keys, and two shifts (one for capitals, one for numerals and symbols). Some cheap "index" typewriters didn't have keyboards at all. But the four-bank, single-shift arrangement was found to be best for touch typing. Once again, considerations of speed were most important.

Ribbon inking. Some other typewriters employed ink rollers or ink pads. The advantage of such a system is that it types very neatly, whereas cloth ribbons create a blurry impression. But ribbons are a little easier to care for, and need to be replaced less often. (Smith-Corona introduced one of the best solutions in the 1960s: a cartridge holding a single-use plastic ribbon.)

When we consider all these features, we can see that the Underwood was a compromise. It was inferior to other designs in certain respects, but on the whole, it served the needs of the market well. It's unfortunate that the Underwood and its imitators drove hundreds of competitors to extinction. After the turn of the century, the diversity of species in the typewriter kingdom would never again reach the level of the 1890s.

If you have an Underwood No. 5, you should enjoy its nearly-indestructible workmanship, classic design, and historic significance. You should type on it, just to experience what it was like to be a typist in the days before electric typewriters and computers. As for monetary value, since the model is plentiful, worth depends very much on condition. Average-condition Underwoods are plentiful and usually sell for $20-$50, but a mint-condition no. 5 could sell for ten times as much.

This table provides serial number data for Underwood Models 4 and 5:

date s.n. date s.n. date s.n.
Dec. 1900 100 1912 450000 1922 1525000
March 1901 1000 1913 551000 1923 1650000
Feb. 1902 10000 1914 655000 1924 1780000
May 1904 50000 1915 740000 1925 1910000
Jan. 1906 100000 1916 830100 1926 2070000
April 1907 150000 1917 940000 1927 2210000
July 1908 200000 1918 1050000 1928 2330000
May 1909 247500 1919 1160000 1929 2450000
Jan. 1910 290000 1920 1280000 1930 3635000
Jan. 1911 360000 1921 1430000 1931 3825000

The last known serial number for a classic No. 5 is 3,885,000.

This giant Underwood was first constructed around 1915 and was modernized for the 1939 World's Fair.

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